Jack Eisenhauer
Four Chronic Risks to Critical Infrastructures
Jack EisenhauerJuly 10, 2014

We tend to think of infrastructure resilience in terms of event-driven disasters. We measure our resilience based on how well we plan for and respond to tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and pandemics. After each event we identify gaps and seams in resilience and learn how to better plan, prioritize our response, and rebuild smarter. Despite the devastation of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, it would have been much worse had regional owners and operators not already addressed the problems they encountered during the previous year’s storm, Hurricane Irene.

Bridge CollapseContinuous learning from our past experience and those of others is an essential part of resilience. But planning for the future based solely on the past is like driving a car by looking in the rearview mirror. I am not advocating that we try to predict the next set of disasters and build protective measures for each one. But we do need to examine emerging risk trends that have the potential to reshape the way we build, protect, and sustain our communities and businesses.

Here are four long-term risks that are changing the way businesses and governments are approaching infrastructure resilience:

  1. Aging Infrastructure – Our roads, power grid, communication networks, waters systems, and other critical infrastructures that provide the foundation for efficient and successful society are in disrepair, posing public danger and potential disruption of essential services. The most recent report card on America’s infrastructures, put out by the American Society of Civil Engineers, gave America a D+. The inability of our aging assets to withstand hurricanes, earthquakes, and even normal wear poses long-term risks to our critical infrastructures. With roughly $1 billion invested in new infrastructure each day, we need to take advantage of each investment to build resilience into long-term capital assets.
  2. Climate ChangeRecent studies have examined the implications of a changing climate on America’s infrastructures. Risks entail both rising sea levels and more frequent and severe weather. The World Economic Forum identified these risks among the ten global risks of highest concern for 2014. One of the best studies to address these issues is the 2013 New York State 2100 Commission report on improving the strength and resilience of New York’s infrastructure. Its recommendations include protecting, upgrading, and strengthening existing systems; rebuilding smarter; encouraging green and natural infrastructure; and promoting integrated planning and decision-making for capital investments.
  3. Physical-Cyber Convergence – The automation of physical processes through the integration of cyber sensors and controls is transforming our economy and society. Automation improves productivity in our factories, throughput on our roads, and power restoration after outages. It even speeds us through supermarket checkouts. However, many of these systems were installed before cyber threats were fully considered, and the security features of new systems are often inadequate to address evolving risks. Now the very systems that automated physical processes can disable or damage them.
  4. Cross-Sector Interdependencies – Physical-cyber convergence has also led to better integration across sectors and supply chains. Highly effective delivery systems enable just-in-time processes that minimize inventories and link U.S. companies to a global network. During uneventful periods, these systems work efficiently. However, dependence on these systems – particularly ubiquitous lifeline services such as electricity, water, and transportation – can lead to complacency. Many businesses, including those in critical infrastructure sectors, have little visibility into the changing risk profile of the sectors and services they depend on. New methods are needed to measure risks to determine proper backup and reserve capabilities.

Simply put, we must look beyond the last storm to guide decisions that will lead to long-term national resilience. We all share the risks of infrastructure disruptions and the solutions for achieving resilience are complex. Therefore, we must forge partnerships among owners and operators, government leaders, communities, and citizens in order to develop resilience strategies that address chronic infrastructure risks.